Often one grows up not fully realizing that some of the things one ate with some regularity might be considered delicacies by others, and even served in the finest, high-dollar restaurants at ridiculously, high prices! Imagine my surprise when I found myself sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris realizing that the 25-dollar dish I had just ordered as an appetizer was only a glorified dish of raw, but well-seasoned meat! Peasant’s food! Or so, I had once thought.
Two of my mother’s brothers and even my grandmother were butchers or did butchering. My uncle, Ben Hahn, delighted in making sausage. Many hunters took him their deer to process into sausage or jerky. He delighted in his task and with all the finesse of a gourmet chef who thoroughly relished incorporating all the spices and ingredients at his command, although they were only of the most basic kinds.
Ben worked at Pyka’s Piggly Wiggly in the mid-50s which was once located at the corner of East Main and State Hwy 16 South. He and my aunt, Edna, often pulled up roots to move to other cities. He had served as the head butcher for Howard Butt’s first HEB in Brownsville before returning to his boyhood home in the early ‘50s. Then in the ‘50s they lived in a house on North Orange Street behind my dad’s law office in the Wieser Building as it was then known.
He worked long hours, six days a week at that Piggly Wiggly. Sunday was typically his day off, but not during hunting season. The weather was colder in those days and dozens of hunters soon knew to drop off their prized kill at his home. Deer and often a pig’s carcass, as well, could be found hanging in a small smokehouse behind his home until he could get to them. Sunday was his day to make sausage. He began by building a fire under a black, iron kettle that he had set up in his back yard. In it he cooked blood and liver sausages throughout the afternoon.
He was well equipped for all of that. His casings had been salted, cleaned, and were typically chilling for some days in his kitchen refrigerator. Opening his refrigerator could be startling for those less stout. Seeing a full gallon of fresh blood was not unusual. If one had not known, this could have been Dracula’s refrigerator. He needed the blood, of course, for making Blood Sausage.
He had converted his screened porch into a butcher shop. On a long, high, table he had mounted a powerful, industrial meat grinder. I always watched in fear as he would shove a hand-full of meat high above his shoulders down into its gaping jaws fearing that at any moment he might just push one of his fingers a tiny bit too far. But he was a master of his work, and much like a master artist, he delighted in his skills.
Sunday evenings became my parents’ night to come to town to play cards with my aunt and uncle. Canasta, later Samba, which was an improved Canasta, were quite popular at that time. It was just something they did each week. No prior announcement was made. We just showed up. Sometimes, during hunting season, the fire under his iron kettle had dimmed to its final hours, but still ripe with glowing coals. Frequently some blood sausages remained to be scooped from the kettle. Dozens of others—some short, others a bit longer, but all quite thick would be cooling on his outdoor tables. He admired his creation with all the satisfaction of a great chef. His liver sausages had also taken their turn in the kettle. A whiff of gray smoke might have begun to drift from his smokehouse hinting that the venison sausage had, like children’s stocking on Christmas Eve, been hung and spaced with great care.
When we arrived, he typically had a few minutes yet to clean and put things away—he took great care of the tools of his trade. Tomorrow, a Monday, he would rise again to be at work by 5 a.m., but now, with great anticipation, it was time to take a well-earned breather.
Wiping his kitchen table’s oil cloth clean, he brought out a platter from his icebox on which he had formed a perfectly rounded mound of what appeared to be nothing but ground meat. This was a well-seasoned mixture of sausage stuffing to which he had additionally crumbled a hand-full of Post Toasties, and a raw egg or two. Saltine crackers appeared and we helped ourselves to this raw delectable—a peasant’s dish while seated around their simple, round, kitchen table! Cold bottles of beers were the crowning touch for the adults—I was yet far too young to enjoy that.
Then, one day, he and my aunt abruptly moved to Llano. Then back. Then to the McAllen. He seemed to like the Valley. And then when his wife died, he came back home. Those Sunday evenings became a distant memory. In later years, we often commented on such things by asking ourselves what rich folks might have eaten. That day, as I sat at that Parisian table, I came to realize that simple, peasant folks, like my uncle, my aunt, and us, had not been deprived of some of the most exquisite delicacies at all. Beef Tartare can be anything one wants it to be—add spices to your heart’s content. To whatever amount of choice ground beef, one might fancy, add fresh, finely cut onions, or shallots, add capers — minced or whole, add chives, salt, and freshly ground black pepper or any other thing you like. Then one must crack an egg or two and mix well. Sprinkle generously with lemon juice. Mix thoroughly—mold it if you like. Do buy fresh baguette crisps—but simple saltines will do just fine. And, most of all, just enjoy!
12 oz. New York strip steak, fat removed, sinew trimmed, diced.
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil.
1 ½ tbsp finely chopped shallots.
1 ½ tbsp chopped fresh parsley.
¼ cup capers, drained and roughly chopped.
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce.
2 or 3 dashes Tabasco, plus more to taste.
1 egg yolk
1 lemon, for squeezing
Freshly cracked pepper to taste.
Crostini for serving.
Start with a chilled plate.
Place the beef in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and stir until well combined.
Add shallots, parsley, capers, Worcestershire, and hot sauces.
Squeeze the juice of the lemon onto the mixture.
Gently squeeze the egg yolk and drizzle it over the beef mixture—not the white.
Stir the ingredients until well-combined and season with pepper.
Transfer to the chilled salt plate or substitute creating a ½ to ¾ inch layer.
Refrigerate 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Remove and serve immediately with bread or crackers.
Serves 4 to 6.
By Mark Wieser